My grandfather Morris wasn’t even 14 years old when he had to flee Kozmyn, a small village in Russia, by himself in 1904. Geopolitics had invaded the young boy’s life. The Czar’s soldiers had come to take him and all the Jewish boys away to fight the Japanese east of Siberia, thousands of miles from the home he knew and loved.
If he had gone with them, he would have never come back. Even if he had somehow managed to survive the Czar’s expansionist war with Japan in East Asia and return home, him and his family would have met the same end as the Jews of Kozmyn a few decades later. They were all brutally murdered by the Nazis and their Ukrainian collaborators.
My grandfather knew what his fate would've been if he didn’t escape, and so he ran in the opposite direction. He kept running until he found refuge in America, the goldeneh medinah (promised land) for Eastern European Jews around the turn of the last century. He never saw his parents again, but he lived and was blessed to start his own family. Refuge in America saved my grandfather.
That’s my story. And that’s why I cannot stand idly by when my government slams its doors on others desperate for refuge in our times.
As a believing Jew, God’s word in the Torah tells me to be kind to strangers and I take the Torah to heart. Ideally, people everywhere should know the heart of the stranger. Every one of our hearts should feel the burdens and pain of others. All of us should stand up for the oppressed even if we ourselves haven't had to face insecurity, exclusion or worse.
However, it seems to be human nature to do the opposite. So many of us close our eyes and pretend we just don’t see the suffering of others. But I simply cannot close my eyes.
I know my own family’s and my people’s historical experience, and it's echoing in what's happening to others today. I imagine my grandfather as 14-year-old Morris from Kozmyn and I think of 14-year-old Muhammad from Kobane, whose home was bombed, lives in a refugee camp, and now needs medical treatment in America – but is being kept out either through outright bans or by other forms of restrictions.
As the Torah tells me, I cannot stand idly by. I must stand strong in militant solidarity to protect him and thousands upon thousands of others. I know the heart of the stranger, for we have been strangers – more times than we can remember.
Besides being born a Jew, I had the good fortune to come into this world 65 years ago with all the rights and responsibilities of an American citizen. This gives me particular opportunities and, consequently, obligations to act.
When the singular intricacies of the arcane US electoral system bizarrely places the levers of state power into the hands of an unconscionable madman, I'm privileged to be able to respond as an American. And, because I can, I must – until this dark storm passes.
Along with millions of other Americans, I'm doing what I can to resist. Acting together in thousands of different ways, we'll turn back the onslaught of chaos erupting all around us.
In the past two weeks, I’ve marched in protests with hundreds of thousands in the streets. I've written and called my members of Congress. I deleted the Uber app when its CEO exploited the plight of refugees stranded at JFK airport in New York City to make a few more bucks.
And, I made a special point of ordering a Starbucks cappuccino for a stranger on the street when its CEO announced that he'll hire 10,000 refugees to work at his stores in the next two years. I’m tweeting, writing and protesting.
Yet, protest isn't enough. I'm committing myself to more long-term engagement on a grassroots level in cleaning up the Democratic Party. We need winning candidates in the future who'll inspire voters to reverse the unparalleled assault on freedoms and civil liberties in America.
I've decided to run in an internal Democratic Party election in March so we can replace the establishment wing of the party that imposed the nomination of Hillary Clinton upon us, a nomination which failed and brought this unprecedented turmoil.
But at the same time, effective political action, vitally important as it is, is not enough. As a believer and a religious person, I can do more than politics. And, because I can do more, I must.
My own soul’s connection with God gives me a deep, heartfelt connection with religious people of all kinds. I know I'm one with all others on a far deeper level than shared politics. I resonate deeply with others when God fills their hearts and moves them toward compassionate action.
I feel that especially with my Muslim brothers and sisters. It's a connection that surprises other Americans and Jews. I know that I can walk into a masjid anywhere and pray together with others, whose souls are yearning to open the channels of love and righteous action.
I can bend my knees and bow my head to the floor, submitting my physical presence in this world, shoulder to shoulder with many brothers of different mothers, whether they were born in Karachi or California, in Peshawar or Pennsylvania.
A few nights ago, I walked into the masjid in my neighbourhood in Vancouver, Canada, where I've been living for the past 20 years. In response to the murder of six Canadian Muslims at prayer in their masjid in Quebec City, hundreds gathered in our local mosque, the Masjid al-Jamia, founded by Pakistani immigrants more than 50 years ago. We opened our hearts to each other and to the One above us. We prayed, simply stood and sat still together in love and solidarity in space that was safe for everyone.
With the blessing of the imam and trustees of the masjid, I brought my shofar – a ram’s horn that issues a call known to Jews across the world. Our Jewish religious tradition has wielded the shofar for 3,000 years to raise a cry of alarm, wake the slumbering, and alert us in times of danger.
Most importantly, the wordless cry calls us to attention and militant resistance to the dangers attacking our communities, whether internal or external. Hearing the shofar, we look inwardly to clear any fog in our minds and see clearly what we must do to respond.
The shofar also calls us to remember the promise that one day in the future – may it not be distant – we will be called to live with each other everywhere in a world filled with universal peace and love.
Until that time, I must do what I can for all those in need, just as my grandfather Morris was all those years ago.
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